Monthly Archives: March 2022

Monday Matters: March 28, 2022



Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.


Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.


So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Empty phrases

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
-Matthew 6: 7,8

In recent readings of Morning Prayer, a few words that I’ve read many times hit me like I’d never heard them before. Does that every happen to you? We begin the confession by saying: Most merciful God. I got to thinking about what it means to begin that liturgy, to begin my day, to live each day in the awareness of the presence of a merciful God. For much of the time, I’m a functional atheist, imagining I can bring God into the picture when I want, when needed. The rest of the time, I’ll run things, thank you very much.

My prayer life exhibits that interest in being in control. (Hear the gospel according to Anne Lamott: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.) We sometimes approach prayer as filibuster, talking endlessly, repeating words somewhat mindlessly, not doing a lot of listening, thinking God will pay attention to us because we talk a lot or craft the language well. We sometimes approach prayer as shopping list, putting in our order like Doordash, waiting to have wishes fulfilled. God as valet. We sometimes approach prayer with magical thinking, a celestial Aladin’s lamp. Often we end up disappointed when wishes are not fulfilled. All of which is to say that there lots of ways for our prayers to be empty phrases.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time praying. He also spent a fair amount of time teaching about prayer, presumably because we need it. He was mindful that there are some ways to pray that are less edifying, some ways that we pray that are more about us than anything else, resulting again in prayers filled with empty phrases.

So how can we come to greater fullness, less emptiness in our prayers?

We can begin by keeping it simple, confident that we actually don’t have to clue God in to what’s going on. In my work in the church, people often feel incapable or unqualified to pray in front of others. That’s why clergy get called on to offer the prayer in a group setting. I found one simple way to get around that. It’s about filling in the blanks:

I thank God that….

I ask God that…

If you’re feeling stuck in your prayer life, you might want to see if this simple approach helps. Anybody can do it.

The call to simplicity in prayer is what I love about Anne Lamott’s description of what it means to pray. Echoing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, she says you don’t need tons of words. In fact, you only need three: thanks, help and wow.

Thanks: Meister Eckhardt said that “if the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Expressions of thanks in all circumstances place us in a frame of mind where we recognize God’s gracious activity in our lives, in our world. What are you thankful for this morning?

Help: It’s a matter of recognizing our absolute dependence, which is how Paul Tillich described faith. It’s the recognition that we can’t do it on our own, that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. Where do you need help today?

Wow: We often fail to notice miracles around us. Here’s Anne Lamott’s take on it: “It’s sort of like when the Wizard of Oz — when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ So where’s the wow factor for you this Monday?

It can really be quite simple, however we pray. Our hearts can be moved into deeper relationship with God in silence, through music, with polished collects of the Prayer Book, with fumbling syntax, with sighs too deep for words, with tears as we consider the brokenness of our world. It’s all offered in the confidence, the amazing grace that a relationship with God is accessible and worth pursuing, and that God knows what we need before we ask. A bit more from Ms. Lamott: “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

God aims to provide what we need, as loving parent. Let’s ditch empty phrases and the filibuster and the wish lists and aim to offer prayers with fullness and simplicity. And love.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters: March 21, 2022


And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.   

          Matthew 6:5-6 (The Message)


The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff.
Timothy Keller

Do good

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:5-6

Those of a certain age may remember a scene from “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp children have been hazing the new governess, Maria (Julie Andrews) on her first day. They were so mean. When they all sit down for dinner, Maria is invited to say grace, a prayer during which she references the unusual ways she has been welcomed into the household. One by one, the children dissolve into tears of shame. A classic example of what I’ve heard described as horizontal prayers.

Such prayers sound something like this: “Lord, I pray that my sibling will stop being such a jerk.” “Lord, I pray that this particular vestry member will have the humility to see how ill-informed his opinion is.” “Lord, I pray that all of us around this dinner table will come to appreciate the Christian point of view on (name the social issue).” You get the idea. It seems that according to Jesus, people using prayer (or any religious practice) in this way is one mark of hypocrisy, masking our own agenda behind piety, bless their hearts.

These days, I hear all kinds of reasons why folks don’t go to church, why there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nones (no religious affiliation) and dones (those who have bailed). I can see reasons why organized religion loses appeal.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, recently commissioned a survey to explore what people think about Jesus. It’s called the “Jesus in America” study. He said of this study: “We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling (editorial comment: phew!) but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians. It’s all Christians.”

The study included questions about what people think about the church. Christian respondents described Christians as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful. Non-Christians had a different perspective. The characteristics they identified were judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant and, you guessed it, hypocritical. This squares with one of the most common reasons people tell me they have given up on church. They say that they don’t go to church because it’s just filled with hypocrites. To which I respond: “Guilty as charged.”

Jesus spent a lot of time contending with hypocrites. A lot of his most charged exchanges were with really religious people. That should give pause to those of us who are clergy, among others. As a result, the really religious people of Jesus’ day were among those who worked hardest to get rid of him.

As I try to understand and embrace his teaching, I sense his fundamental desire for people to have a deep and authentic relationship with God, a relationship that would be sustaining and joyful. I think he recognized that one of the things that get in the way is worrying about how we come off, how we appear, what other people think of us. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to avoid that.

But perhaps it’s possible if we try his experiment, taking our prayers to some quiet place where we get to realize that prayer is simply a conversation between us and God (an amazing, miraculous privilege when you think about it). It’s similar to the experiment we explored last week, giving alms/doing good in secret, in privacy, so we can be liberated from public opinion, so we can be liberated from the seductive power of our own ego. (After all, we can think of ego as an acronym: edging God out.)

All of it is a way for us to come to a deeper relationship with God, which is key not only to love of God, but also key to love of neighbor, and ultimately key to love of self. Grab some quiet prayer time this week. See what happens.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

A Story of Transformation
Thursday, March 24th, 7-8pm EDT | Zoom

We hope you will join us to hear how one church’s focus on spiritual growth has transformed its congregation. 

We invite you to an intimate discussion with Rev. Greg Bezilla of Holy Trinity Church in New Jersey, on how RenewalWorks focused his leadership and the parish on deepening their love of God and neighbor. He will discuss what concerns initially encouraged him to embark on RenewalWorks in 2018 and how the church worked to implement the RenewalWorks’ Leadership Team recommendations over the subsequent 3 years. In Fall 2021, Holy Trinity returned to RenewalWorks as a way to measure those efforts. Their results were indeed different and included growth in many important measures.

We are excited to share an interview with this church’s leadership discussing their inspiring journey of rejuvenation. Please join us.

We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar the day before.

Monday Matters: March 14, 2022

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
-Harry Truman


When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
-Matthew 6:2-4 (The Message)


“When we fulfill a mitzvah and perform an acceptable deed, we grasp [man’s] attachment to God. If it were possible to say so, God is revealed in our deeds, in the depths of our being we perceive the divine voices.”
This is what Heschel calls the “leap of action”: “To surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the presence of God.”
-Jacob Petuchowski, in a 1958 article in Commentary Magazine
discussing the theology of Abraham Heschel

Do good

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:2-4

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This wisdom from Jesus has found its way into contemporary conversation, but probably not in the way Jesus intended. When we think of an organization where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it can be one of the harshest critiques of a company, an administration, a church, a family. But in the context of Jesus’ preaching, it really is about the value of doing what we do without concern for recognition. It’s about the ways we think about reward. It’s about what motivates us to do good.

This week, we continue with the portion of the Sermon on the Mount which asks us to consider what drives our spiritual practices. These are good Lenten questions. Last Monday morning, we explored those motivations. And last Monday evening, with my nightly reading of Howard Thurman, I came across a pertinent reflection in his book, Meditations of the Heart. Better late than never. As we hear Jesus talk about our frame of mind as we give alms (which I take to mean as we offer help to people in need), Howard Thurman offered helpful amplification. Here are some excerpts from this meditation entitled “Shall I do good?”

Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? It is very difficult to escape the searching tyranny of reward and punishment…Again and again, to be good means to us to be approved.

The virtuous act may or may not pay dividends. In the last analysis, [men] cannot be persuaded to be good because of the reward either here or beyond this “vale of tears.” [Men] must finally come to the place in their maturity which makes them do the good thing because it is good.

When this is our awareness, then the whole matter of reward and punishment, approval and disapproval, becomes strangely irrelevant. Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? No! I shall be good because it is good.

We often talk about folks who give alms, those who serve with time, talent and treasure as people who are do-gooders. It’s not always a positive description. In light of what Jesus says, amplified by Howard Thurman, what does it mean to you to do good? These early days in Lent are a good time to think about that. There’s opportunity for a seasonal focus on what we might take on as a spiritual discipline. We often find that is some way of helping people in need. Those needs surround us. There’s plenty of opportunity.

So may I suggest this week that you and I consider ways to provide support for someone in need, doing so under the radar. Don’t sound any trumpets in advance of this good work. If at all possible, do it in a way that it would not be possible for that person to thank you, in a way that no one would know that you have done this good thing. It might be serving those without homes or food. It might be reaching out to someone who is isolated or grieving. Maybe it’s sending an anonymous bouquet or a meal. Maybe it’s a really generous tip. It might be a generous contribution to a person we pass on the street. Maybe it’s making a contribution to support Ukrainian refugee relief. It may not be possible to do this anonymously. If that’s the case, don’t let it stop you from giving. But to the best of your ability, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Then reflect on that experience.

Thurman put it this way: I shall be good because it is good. That’s all we need to know. Our practice of goodness, whether anybody else is aware of it or not, whether anybody recognizes it or not, puts us in a holy place.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

Please join us Thursday, March 24th at 7 pm EDT
for a conversation with Rev. Gregory Bezilla,
Rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in South River, New Jersey

We are delighted to be speaking with Rev. Bezilla about his congregation’s experience repeating the RenewalWorks process. What have they learned along the way?
We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar a few days prior.

Monday Matters (March 7, 2022)

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
-Romans 7:19-25


In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5.16


J. S. Bach devoted his life to creating music to the glory of God. “The aim and final end of all music,” he affirmed, “should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” As he set about composing, he lived out this conviction repeatedly, marking his blank manuscript pages with the initials, “J. J.” (Jesu Juva—“Help me, Jesus”), or “I. N. J.” (In Nomine Jesu—“In the name of Jesus”). At the end of his compositions, Bach regularly inscribed the letters “S. D. G.” (Soli Deo Gloria—“To God alone, the glory”). Bach understood that all of life can and should be lived for the glory of God alone. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31)
-Dr. Jerry Moan

Why do we do what we do?

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 6:1

Lent is a season for self-examination. As we continue with reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, moving to the sixth chapter of Matthew, we’re faced with this basic question: Why do we do what we do? Sharpening the focus a bit, when it comes to our spiritual lives, our religious observance, what’s the motivation?

To begin to answer those questions, I return to the wisdom from one of my predecessors, who said he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. We would do well to simply admit that fact. As we approach our own religious observance, as we try to figure out what discipleship means, we recognize that we practice our righteousness for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with the desire to have people think we’re really swell. That’s especially true for clergy who practice religion in a quite public way. But I suspect each one of us has some part of us that practices our righteousness in order to get approval or accolades from those around us. So what are we to do? Some follow up questions come to mind:

What should be our motivation in practicing our righteousness?

Maybe it’s worth thinking about that word “righteousness.’ It’s easy to think that it suggests moralism, a commitment to getting things right all the time, which easily falls into that unattractive holier-than-thou frame of mind. But in the context of the New Testament, righteousness means a number of things. It can be thought of as a term of relationship. Righteousness as a matter of being rightly related to God and neighbor. This comes in fulfillment of the teaching of Jesus who said that the commandments we are given have to do with love of God and neighbor. If that has any truth to it, it means our practice should be focused on how we deepen those relationships, and how we set them right when we mess things up.

Maybe that’s a good focus for the season of Lent, to recognize as the confession says that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind. We have not loved neighbor as self. Sure, mixed motives rule the day. (See St. Paul’s confession of his own struggles as described in Romans 7 and printed in the column on the left). Admitting all that, we may still want to take steps towards wholeness of those relationships. Deepening those relationships may well be the motivation to embrace. Which leads to the next question.

How do we get our motives right, or at least move in that direction?

On Ash Wednesday, during the time when ashes are imposed, the liturgy invites us to read Psalm 51. That psalm includes this prayer: “Create in me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me.’ Based on my own record, left to my own devices, I’m not going to be able to get my motives right. I suspect that that kind of purity of heart will not be given to me in this life in fullness.

But if I am to make any steps in that direction, coming to the kind of purity of heart that Jesus said was blessed, it will come as a gift, as a grace. With that gift available to us, we are called to accept it, to see it as an open door which we can walk through, a bridge we can cross.

One of the ways to make that movement is through spiritual practices, recommended in the invitation to the season of Lent in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Practices like prayer and fasting, reading and meditating on God’s word. Practices like giving something up, e.g., those things that block our spiritual growth. Practices like taking something on, e.g., serving those in great need. Which leads to the third question.

What is the great reward Jesus mentions?

I’m not exactly sure, as heaven remains a wondrous mystery. I’m going to guess that it is not that we will receive accolades on steroids. It will not be a heavenly corner office or a divine macmansion. In fact, I suspect it will not be about us. I’m imagining that it will be the arrival at that place of complete healing and wholeness (a.k.a., salvation), where love is expressed without ambivalence. When our focus is on how we look to other people, that heavenly experience may simply be beyond reach.

I think of heaven as that place where we do indeed love God with all our heart and soul and mind, where we actually love neighbor as self. In doing so, I believe we will find our fullest joy, the joy that God created us to enjoy. I can dream, can’t I?

-Jay Sidebotham


Ready to begin your RenewalWorks journey?

Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.

A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.

That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.

When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

Get Started